Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) dir. Peter Jackson
Starring: Elijah Wood, Viggo Mortonsen, Ian McKellan, Sean Astin, Christopher Lee, Cate Blanchet, Hugo Weaving, Liv Tyler
By Alan Bacchus
The experience of watching the entire ‘Lord of the Rings’ saga is one of supreme admiration, 3 x 3hrs overloaded with every possible emotion, so many wondrous creatures and lands, so many sweeping epic landscapes trying really hard to take our breath away.
Everything to do with the film points to it as a phenomenal achievement. The challenge of adapting the dense Tolkien material for the big screen, making it visual and not literary and rendering it palatable to both Tolkienites and lay audiences is miraculous. The cinematic achievements made these films the high bar of technical cinema of its day –special effects which used a mixture of modern CGI and old fashioned in camera sleight of hand is clever and near seamless (though less so now). The consistency of tone, pace, and visual design over these three films which from pre-production of the first film to post of the last film spanned 5 years is remarkable. Hell, shooting three movie back-to-back-to-back was unheard of.
So why am I left unmoved by any of these pictures?
For good and bad Peter Jackson and his team, for sake of satisfying the broadest possible audience has given everybody a little of everything they want to see, he and so will inevitably alienate and dissatisfy some.
As for the first film, to bring people into the world of Tolkien, FOTR is by far the most baroque of the three. It doesn’t long to introduce the world and the characters. The opening sequence tells us of the forging of a number of rings for the purpose of keeping order in the world (though it’s consciously oblique with the details of exactly how rings can do this). We’re then told of the ONE ring forged in ‘secret' to rule all other rings. Again, the physics/mechanics or even logic of this statement we’re not supposed to question. And so this becomes literature’s, and now cinema’s, biggest ever maguffin, the impetus to send us on Jackson’s epic journey.
The opening moments in the Hobbit Shire introducing Bilbo Baggins passing the ring off to Frodo are perhaps the best moments in the entire series. Ian Holm’s frightful and twitchy performance realizes a huge backstory of pain and suffering by the ring (a backstory which, of course, will be fleshed out by Guillermo Del Toro’s version of ‘The Hobbit”). In fact, the entire first half of Fellowship is spectacular. The horse riding ringwraiths, who resemble the evil ghosts in ‘The Frighteners’, is the scariest creatures in the whole series, but whom we unfortunately rarely get to see in the latter half of the first and rest of the other two films. Weighting the film down is the lengthy Galadriel forest sequence which is full of visual CG wonder, and foreshadowing but a slow uneventful section which adds to the running time.
The second half shows the Fellowship united and fighting off the beasts in the Mines of Moria and the Orcs on the hillside in the film’s climax, and the eventual demise of Boromir who succumbs to the lure of the ring. On first viewing I questioned the lack of scope in the final battle, but after seeing the escalation of action in the second and third films, Jackson’s instinct not to blow his wad early was a good one. In hindsight the contained forest battle to end FOTR is perhaps the best action sequence in series. Free of the grossly exaggerated CG multiplication of huge armies which now looks so awfully unreal, the use of real creatures and actors with real make-up makes the fight that much more violent and intense.
Looking back, Wood and Astin make a good team as the Hobbit leaders mixing drama and humour well. Unfortunately Billy Boyd is a Jar-Jar worthy waste of space, and most of the time excruciating to watch. Dominic Monaghan is barely noticeable which is probably a good thing (as an actor, he would be challenged much more in 'Lost'). Orlando Bloom’s silent but stoic presence is also barely noticeable, but when he’s fighting and launching arrows with speed and accuracy at the Orcs during the action sequence there's no one better. John Rhys-Davies is disguised well as a 3 foot dwarf, but the camera tricks required to make the tall actor into a short character prevents us from seeing the character fight in all his full glory. His tight close-ups thus have to be used over and over again to avoid recognizing the size differences and thus becomes a visual handicap.
Perhaps the most irksome quality of this film and much of the trilogy as a whole is Jackson’s inability (at least to this viewer) to make me believe in the emotions of his characters. In ‘The Fellowship of the Ring’ in particular Jackson's emotional histrionics are hit so hard he’s forcing us to feel his characters’ pain harder than he needs to. Just look how hard Jackson wrings out the tears shed by the death of Gandalf. After the magnificent Mines of Moria sequence which has the Grey Wizard sacrificing himself against the impressive Balrog monster, Jackson lingers heavily on the Hobbits excruciating pain, and in slow motion and with Howard Shore’s melodramatic swooning. We get this same feeling during Samwise Gamgee’s fitful attempt to chase down Frodo who has floated away in a boat. Frodo’s dramatic rescue of Sam feels like Jackson again not trusting the investment we have already made in the characters and pulling too hard for emotion where force is not required.
Then again even as I write this it feels odd to critique so finely a film, which as mentioned I admire so much. But then again we can’t just settle to admire a film. To be moved by a film is to have the amalgam of its scenes, sequences, characters, music, special effects and combine to be greater than the sum of its parts. There’s so much in ‘Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring’ that in fits and starts the moments of greatness, but as a whole, it’s just an admirable film.
The entire “Lord of the Rings” saga is now available on Blu-Ray from Alliance Films in Canada. Look out for more extensive examination of the new Blu-Ray set in the subsequent analysis of the next two films later this week. As for the question of the 'Extened Edition', while I enjoyed watching the near three and a half hour version for curiosity sake, the theatrical edition is still my preferred version to watch. Thankfully the Blu-Ray set contains all the comprehensive special features which appeared on the Extended Edition DVDs released back in the day.